Judge Brett Cullum asks whether you've heard the one about the traveling saleswoman yet.
The past never dies. It kills.
Sarah Michelle Gellar was riding high on her status as "the new scream queen" after a starring role in The Grudge. Seemed the actress mostly known as Buffy the Vampire Slayer had escaped the small screen, and made it big as a bona fide film star who could pack theatres by running from Japanese house demons. The Return is an ironically named project, since Gellar's name appears above the title—as if the mere mention of her name would be enough for us to drop everything and run back into the theatres for another visually stylish thriller starring the now brunette horror icon. I have to admit I asked for this title mainly because I like Sarah, and The Return's main marketing ploy had weaved its magic on my Gellar-loving fanboy mind. I'm rooting for the girl to make it big again, but unfortunately The Return isn't the vehicle that will cement her "born again star" status. Keep looking, Buffy, there's got to be something to bring you back to the soft limelight glow of the Hellmouth other than PG-13 horror long on art design and short on chills.
In The Return, Gellar plays Joanna Mills, a traveling saleswoman on her way up in the company thanks to a nearly perfect closing record. Yet when she heads into her home state of Texas, inexplicably strange things start happening. The radio plays the same song over and over, the mirror begins to reveal someone other than her, and painful visions grow stronger and stronger. What's haunting her? Is the past reaching out to claim another victim or can Joanna piece together what is happening before it's too late.
The Return lasts just over an hour and 20 minutes, but it feels much longer. The problem is the filmmakers strive to make the viewers equally as disoriented as Joanna is until the final reveals. For the first 60 minutes nothing is explained, and we drift from one stylish creepy sequence to the next with no logic or reason. There's nothing scary, because The Return strives to be a supernatural psychological thriller rather than a typical slasher film or anything resembling a spookfest. The cover art is misleading, since this one is not Japanese horror. In fact, I hesitate to lump it in with any brand of horror. It owes far more to the films of M. Night Shamalayan (The Sixth Sense) than the work of Wes Craven (NIghtmare on Elm Street) or John Carpenter (Halloween).
British director Asif Kapadia (The Warrior) makes his American debut with this feature, and he brings a whole ton of style and visual attention to detail to the proceedings. Where The Return does well lies in the design elements, and the way it captures small-town creepiness by filming in real Southern Gothic locales just outside of Austin, Texas. Things look great even when they're confusing as hell. The narrative is the biggest weakness dragging down The Return. Subplots are not fleshed out well, and the novelty of being disoriented wears off after 15 minutes. There's an interesting story buried under the red herrings and false jumps, but the final reveal ties things up too neatly. Simply considering all the angst we've been though to get to the final reel, it promises to be mind-blowing and it's just not.
The cast is strong for a B-horror film, and the acting is a notch above what we'd expect. Sarah Michelle Gellar does her icy, slightly removed character quite well. What's surprising about her as Joanna is she tries to play things simple and almost warm, but ends up being even more impenetrable than ever. Gellar is just one of those actresses who always seems to have more going on in her head than the scene at hand, and she detaches from the world. In a role like this it works for her. Sam Shepard (The Right Stuff) is cast as her doting yet ignored father who doesn't quite understand what is happening with his little girl. Sexy Australian Peter O'Brien (Queer as Folk) shows up to provide mystery and romance at the right moments. Even the supporting players do a good job of keeping up the mystery and adding to the intense atmosphere.
The DVD presentation renders the story extremely well on the small screen. It's a super dark film, and black levels make or break the terror. They are appropriately deep and have a nice inky texture that speaks of a careful, well-executed transfer. The Surround sound works to deliver the whispers and creaks effectively, even though it is at a disadvantage when removed from the complete immersion of a theatre. Included with the feature is an alternate ending, along with many excised scenes and alternate story sequences. The deleted scenes reveal interesting points not well communicated in the final cut. The making-of featurette also serves to communicate the point of the story more clearly.
The Return is an interesting yet flawed experience, a Southern Gothic tale of ghostly flashes of an unsolved murder. Getting through the whole thing may feel like a chore since it strives to confuse more than it illuminates from the start. The clumsy narrative makes the first half hard to sit through, and the final reveal feels less complex than what is promised. Despite the basic flaws, the production design and acting work well enough to make it better than it should be. It's worth a look if you're a fan of Gellar or looking for a supernatural thriller to pass the time. The DVD is a nice technical experience with some extras that throw light on a confusing dark piece. This is hardly the title that continues Sarah Michelle Gellarâs reign as scream queen, but it's at least nice to look at. A better pace could have helped, as well as something deeper in the finale. It offers more style than fright, but somewhere in here is a romantic thriller with a chilly core.
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